Posted by: facetothewind | May 6, 2010

Why I lost interest in Rufus Wainwright

Singer songwriter Rufus Wainwright used to cutely declare himself part of a modern Von Trapp family of folk singers. Somewhere along the line he declared himself and his family musical royalty. But I guess I missed the part where he and his family did anything that warranted their apotheosis.

I guess I might have known something was up with his downfall when the night he performed in Scottsdale and I had an extra ticket, I could not find a single taker for it…and I called 4, count ’em FOUR previously avid Rufus fans. And none of them had any interest in a FREE orchestra seat ticket to see the famed RW. None of them had other plans that night either.

Witness now my sad tale of disillusionment as I take down my Rufus Wainwright posters and close my iTunes Music Store page without making a single purchase from Rufus’ new album…

From the Associated Press (on the possibility of fathering a child):

Wainwright: I’m definitely at the age. I’m 37 and I have a lot of girlfriends out there who are really starting to climb the walls a little bit. And I’m cute, so there’s talk occasionally. I have to be honest too: Everyone in my family’s a musician and is very good. My sister’s amazing (Martha Wainwright), my father (Loudon Wainwright III) and my mother was amazing, and I have another sister, Lucy Wainwright Roach, who’s incredible. So there’s definitely a good gene pool here and I’ve gotten some offers.

From the Washington Post (on his new album):

Neither explicitly about death nor about life (the sonnets arguably excepted), “Lulu” is an exquisite, profoundly intimate grab bag of not necessarily complementary musical ideas, draped in black crepe. In other words, it’s difficult. Each song seems more inaccessible than the last, each is performed with a determined lack of sentimentality that somehow makes it even sadder.

From New York Magazine (on staking his claim as musical royalty):

Wainwright, his friends often say, can only be understood in the context of his family. “They just strike me as an aristocracy, a royal family,” says the musician Thomas Bartlett (who performs under the name Doveman), a collaborator who played at the Christmas show and recently recorded an album of Edith Piaf covers with Martha. “They’re usually the most compelling people in the room, and they know it.”

His mother, Kate, came from the singing McGarrigles from Montreal, while his father, Loudon Wainwright III, was the Westchester-raised son of a longtime Life magazine editor. Loudon was once compared to Bob Dylan for his blunt, acerbic folk songs, but while he never became nearly that big, he’s still the only family member to have a single on the American pop charts: “Dead Skunk,” back in 1972. The couple divorced in the mid seventies, and McGarrigle raised Rufus and Martha.

“We’d go out to a bar,” says artist Walt Cassidy, formerly the club kid Walt Paper, an early friend of Wainwright’s, “and Rufus’s mom and sister would be there, and if there happened to be a stage or a musical instrument, forget it—they’d kick the other band off the stage and take over the equipment and do a show.”

“It’s an eccentric family where everyone has a role to play, and Rufus is the little prince,” says singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, a friend of and sometime collaborator with the Wainwrights. “He’s always had a very strong sense of his own destiny.”

A lot of Wainwright’s talent, and confidence, came from his mother. “I was her prince, her medieval courtier; she was my lady, and I was her knight,” Wainwright says. “I mean, thank God I’m gay, or else it would’ve been really weird.”

On Rufus’ unkind remarks toward Toronto and insulting his fans:

RW: “Toronto. I can’t stand it – the place drives me mad. I’m allowed to say this because I’m Canadian. I have friends there, I work there, but I find it really hard to like. I will have to go back there, but I wish I didn’t have to. It’s trying to be the New York of the Midwest. I much prefer Montreal.”

Now, this really isn’t a shock because Torontonians are used to this self-hating dialogue, especially considering most of us are imports from other suburbs, cities, provinces or countries. But whether it’s serious discontent or just Wainwright rolling in a too-cool Let’s All Hate Toronto phase, we won’t know until he eventually trundles back to the city and explains himself.

From David Gilmore:

As a songwriter and vocalist, I still have a measure of faith left in Rufus, though certainly it has diminished over the years since Poses and Want One blew me out of the water. Those albums were produced during his drug period. And there was something raw and tender about them. Many of us Rufus fans waited patiently through his Judy Garland antics which was a good publicity stunt, I admit. Then came Release the Stars – a sparkling album that was more flash than substance. The tour was really much more significant than the musical content. The Portland concert was a peak experience to behold. But the music didn’t endure.

And so we continued to wait for that promised Rufus-and-a-piano album. We went through his opera phase with him, which seemed to be more of a dud than a creative explosion. It was widely panned by critics while Rufus was expecting to burst onto the stage like a reincarnation of Verdi himself. He even got the outfits and grew the beard for the occasion. Kathud.

Meanwhile singers like Mika appeared on the stage, crowding Rufus a bit. Look at the picture above. CLEARLY Mika’s marketeers were going for the jugular with Rufus and his fan base. Only thing is, Mika really accomplished what Rufus aimed for and never achieved: Mika sold nearly 6 million copies of his first album. And he put out a songbook…one of the GREAT ways to build your fan base among passionate musicians. Rufus’ handlers seemed too busy trying to blow more smoke on stage. No iTunes freebies like Mika. No songbook. No interview with the Gay & Lesbian Review – I know because I was authorized to conduct that interview. But ask me if Rufus’ publicity company in New York ever returned a single email or phone call. No, they never did. It was starting to seem that Rufus was more focused on elevating himself to a sense of musical divinity while in fact, others were actually achieving it.

Mika drew the big crowds, sold the big albums, got the Grammy nomination. And he did it all with a LOT LESS TALENT. Sigh.

Rufus squanders his talent and inflates himself beyond his abilities…which is unfortunate because his abilities are beyond his glitter and hijinks, his self-absorption and his lederhosen.

So for those of us who waded through his Liberace-like outfit misfires, who waited hopefully that our muse would come off stage and say hello…for those of us who waited 3 years for his latest album only to find there’s nothing on it you would actually want to buy, I say we’ve waited long enough. Rufus seems sadly lost in a narcisissistically wounded playground of his own making and too fascinated by his own mystique to pay much attention to his craft. An artist who has lost sight of his inner critic is bound to burden his public at some point with mediocrity that really should have been left to the editing room floor. But you can’t tell that to royalty…or someone who perceives himself as such.

What comes next from Wainwright will undoubtedly be undignified as the outside world of critical failure punctures his balloon. Whereas once we clung to Rufus to save us from the degeneration of pop music, now I think we’re witnessing the deflation of a potentially great career.

One former fan I know suggested we start a campaign to get Rufus back on drugs so he can write another good album. Hey, I’d chip in for a bite guard for him.



  1. When it comes to music, to each his own. I ask myself how do I defend my favorite musician/song-writer/preformer, at age 62, from his peers, this peer, in particular who is so disenchanted with him?
    I have heard lots of great music in my lifetime. I was there when RnR was being born. I remember Elvis, the DickClark/Bandstand/PrettyBoyz, DooWop, the Beatles, Dylan & Baez, psychdelic music, David Bowie, Kate Bush, ‘And Disco. I recall dropping out of pop-culture in 1980’s to get absorbed in progressive “new-age/electronic” (Philip Glass, Constance Demby & Deuter & more) My nieces introduced me to Rufus via “Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk”! I LOVED IT. I also loved the music from Release the Stars, which some did not like. There are so many Wainwright songs I resonate with. No doubt, Rufus will have his highs & lows, all great musicians do. It only bothers me slightly, that this blogger is no longer “into Rufus”.

    I have complete confidence that Rufus Wainwright will continue to produce great music, that his audiance base will continue to grow, I love it that I can listen to this young man now, and think when I am dead in a few years, he will be giving the world even greater music. He is nowhere near his peak, that is obvious to me. If Rufus can’t get his kicks from cocaine, he’lljust go back into the rainforest & return w/a shaman’s elixer that will make 2-day’s shrooms feel tame!

  2. Presumably David this is an impression written in a fit of pique at not having your calls returned and not actually meant to be regarded as a serious critique of the latest work from Rufus Wainwright. How you reach the conclusion that this album is comprised of an output that belongs on the edit room floor I do not know, when you yourself seem to have made your own judgement based on little more than the samples and snippets from the iTune store page! I cannot understand why a fan once so enthralled by Rufus’ art could not see his way to at least purchase the latest offering from his former ‘muse’ and give it a fair hearing before condemning such an intensely complex, passionate and highly eclectic work in such an off-hand manner. Rather, it reads like a few random digs at his very personality and highly regarded family, and resorts to dragging out a long since forgotten faux-pas by Rufus, all in lieu of any kind of constructive comment on the actual work itself!

    Are you actually familiar with what Rufus Wainwright has been doing for the past three years David? If you were then you would surely concede that the sheer extent, quality and diversity of this prolific artist’s output is mind-boggling! A composer of this calibre is not going to stay studio-bound just to feed an indifferent God of popular culture and Mammon or pander to the Mika market, but is of course going to explore his myriad talents. Aside from extensive touring following Release The Stars this output includes a successful collaboration with avant garde theatre director Bob Wilson for which Rufus wrote glorious music to some twenty Shakespearian sonnets – three of which are on the new album All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu.

    He also wrote and staged his first opera, ambitiously penning the score, libretto and orchestrations himself! As is well documented, he embraced opera at the age of fourteen and has been a devotee ever since. So for you to suggest that writing an opera of his own is a mere ‘phase’ is to show breath-taking ignorance of this artist’s central creative influence. And Prima Donna was decisively not – as you dismissively and inaccurately opine – ‘a dud’. Having actually seen the opera twice in Manchester last year I can tell you that it was a joy to hear and to see and the audience loved it. And Rufus set quite a few hearts a-flutter in his Verdi attire, an impish flourish of humour by the maestro which, far from falling flat, went down a treat with his audience! And as for the critics – it was not as you say widely ‘panned’. The reviews were generally mixed and balanced between positive and encouraging to constructively critical. Yes there were some sniffy derisive comments from the usual self-styled purveyors of ‘high’ culture, the people who think they know better than us mere plebs – but these are the people Rufus wants to rescue opera from! The Prima Donna Overture is absolutely beautiful and the Picardy and Les Feux arias are haunting (this is also on the new album). There are beautiful romantic Rufus touches and flourishes throughout, both in the music and the narrative – he is not above poking a little fun at the form which was really refreshing and funny to witness. As Dan Caims of the London Sunday Times wrote in his review after the Manchester premiere: Prima Donna “is decidedly and emphatically not the work of a dilettante’. This opera is currently alive and well and adapting to its 21st Century audience and particular milieu. Having premiered successfully in Manchester and London it will be travelling to Toronto in June and then to Australia; it would seem that Toronto is proud of its association with such a composer and thankfully they have chosen to judge him on his Art and not his add-libbing!

    Despite this period being dominated by great personal sadness for Rufus with the illness of his mother, he still found time to go to his piano and write an album of original songs with a dark subject matter and the end product is an unsentimental, energetic and original piece of work – it may not be an easy listen or a favourite for many fans but it is – as always with this artist – utterly compelling!
    I draw your readers’ (if there are any) attention to your illustration. Note the Prince on the right, this is the original prototype, the true heir to the throne; the one on the left is the pretender – the ‘dud’. The musical genius and fearless individualism of Rufus Wainwright opened up the doors for performers such as Mika whatshisname!

    Another triumph for Rufus during this period was the 2009 release of the DVD Milwaukee At Last which showcases his dazzling abilities as an accomplished musician and showman and also underscores how brilliant the Release the Stars album actually is with its now well established and – yes- enduring classics such as the exquisitely elegiac Leaving for Paris, the drippingly sensuous Not Ready for Love and climatic Slideshow! The strutting, stridently confident and focussed Rufus on that DVD is entertainment par excellence! I was also lucky enough to catch his show in Dublin from his All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu tour where he was applauded and cheered thunderously when he came back out for the second half and got two standing ovations. All of the above does not in anyone’s book add up to any kind of a ‘downfall’ for Rufus any time soon! And all this wonderful original art sans chemical enhancers! I agree with the previous commentator on this blog that Rufus Wainwright has not nearly reached his peak yet and I believe that this dark period is his time in the rainforest so to speak. Lulu is a metaphor for destructive energy and drives and they beckoned to Rufus many times during the past three years – but he didn’t go with them – he stayed resolutely at the helm, as a son and sibling, as a composer and as a professional, sober and ‘firing on all cylinders’ and this new album is a record of that. Those chaotic days are gone for Rufus and nobody would wish them back on him – not even in jest.

    How much this composer must have learnt these last three years! I for one am looking forward to how it all goes back into his next opera, or musical, or studio album. But whatever he decides to do, I and his ever-growing legion of fans world-wide will remain enthralled and spellbound by whatever Rufus does next! Like Blake, this artist has given us his Songs of Innocence and now the mature man and artist will sing for us his Songs of Experience and I for one can’t wait!

    I sincerely hope David that if you ever were to get that interview with Rufus for the Gay & Lesbian Review that you would do some research beforehand and at least take the time to listen to your subject’s work before dismissing him in a fit of pique at perceived slights from his handlers and management company! And while we’re on the subject of unreturned calls, the night he played in Scottsdale and you couldn’t get one acceptance for your invitation to four ‘friends’ and ‘fans’ with nothing else on that night. Hmmm… maybe you should take out your much loved copy of Want 1 and put Vibrate on repeat…

    • Hi Adrienne –

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m actually really glad you wrote. I appreciate the discussion on my blog.

      Your points are well-taken. Clearly, you’re still quite enamored with the RW. I think once I took my rose colored glasses off, I began to see some of the points I make in this essay.

      I do want to point out that I got a lot of feedback from my regular Rufus fans who all actually agreed. They didn’t post their comments publicly and I wish they had. But each of them said in essence, “You nailed it. I feel the same.” SO, I know it’s not just me and my disenchantment over his handlers. It is his deep narcissism and conceit that bugs me.

      Whether or not he has already peaked at the Wants will remain to be scene. I am CERTAINLY open to being wrong. I would absolutely love if Rufus would come out with blockbusters. But like Aaron Copland, perhaps the well has gone dry.

      And perhaps with a little management change and some humility in whatever form that should arrive, I would be happy to jump back on the bandwagon. Until I hear something that enchants me, see something more than his self-interested blathering about his genius, then I will remain disenchanted.

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